Animals of the Andes: Wild Chinchillas

October 03, 2012
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Chinchillas are popular household pets, but these South American rodents are critically endangered. There are two types of chinchillas in the wild— long-tailed and short-tailed. The former species is found exclusively in the northern mountain range of Chile, while short-tailed chinchillas exist throughout the Andes in Bolivia, Argentina and Peru as well as Chile.

According to IUCN Redlist, both species of chinchilla have been categorized as critically endangered due to severe population declines that have reduced their overall size by as much as 90 percent in the past 15 years. Illegal hunting of these creatures for their fur is the main reason for the significant drop in numbers, and a loss of natural habitat has contributed as well.

Chinchilla fur is highly sought-after because of its extraordinary softness. Each hair follicle grows more than 50 separate hairs, compared to humans, who produce only one hair per follicle. Their fur is so plush that people began hunting the small creatures faster than they could reproduce. Hunting chinchillas has been outlawed across their habitat, and the rodents are protected by the Convention on International Trade of Endangered Animals.

When your small group travel brings you to Machu Picchu, the highlands of Ecuador or other Andean regions of South America, be on the lookout for the quick little critters. They are active mainly at night, but tend to emerge around dusk from crevices and holes in the rocks of the barren mountainous areas they call home. Chinchillas will forage primarily for seeds and grass, but also snack on other vegetation and even insects from time to time.

Chinchilla are comparable to softballs or large grapefruit in size, but this is mostly due to the thick coat of soft fur, which makes these creatures very lightweight. If you are lucky enough to spot one chinchilla, you'll likely see others, as these rodents live in colonies. Females typically give birth to two litters each year, but since they have a longer gestation period (nearly four months) than other rodents, they have comparatively fewer offspring, which is why it has been difficult for the species to recover from the substantial losses to hunting over the years.